It’s a song you’ll hear if ever you venture into the Otavalo bus terminal, amongst the hordes of people, the food vendors, and the giant buses decked out like drag queens- all lights, pink fridge and loud music- the chant that floats through the air:
“Quito, Quito, Quito!”
It’s the ayudantes, the helpers, the person on each Ecuadorian bus that takes your fare, plays the horrible action movie too loud, and assists the tiny old ladies getting on and off the bus. While the bus is stationed in the terminal, they stand outside and yell the destination of their bus. The Quito ayudantes are especially loud. Maybe because I’m a gringa, and they think I’ll always be going to Quito.
They’re not that wrong. For those of you who don’t know, who haven’t seen my increasingly pathetic facebook status updates, I have had problems getting a visa. As my 90-day tourism visa draws to a close, trips to Quito have increased. Once for an appointment with the U.S. Embassy, this past weekend for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then again today to see if they have approved my visa.
It started back in January, when the San Francisco Consulate shut down their website, weeks before I needed to leave, and refused to answer any of my phone calls. I needed a volunteer visa, which would allow me twelve months in the country. The weeks leading up to my departure were anxious: full of panic stricken e-mails between Heidi, Anna and I, frustrating interactions the consulate, and finally, a last minute trip to San Francisco to watch a power-hungry woman named Sylva give me a visa and then annul it. Apparently the requirements for the visa had changed in the 24 hours since I had spoken to her.
But I was able to enter the country on a standard tourism visa. We figured once I was in the country, we could easily figure out a solution.
Quito is an interesting city. It sits in a narrow corridor between mountains, spilling down the middle and up the sides like a fast moving river of colored houses and cathedrals. You can go up the Teleferico, a gondola that climbs up the side of Pichincha, and see how the buildings snake through the valley, or sit at Cafe Moisaico on the hill and marvel at how a city that sits at 8,000 feet can be surrounded by even higher mountains.
Unsurprisingly, a visa solution has not been easy. We went to the U.S. Embassy where the ambassadors scratched their heads, apologized for the inconvenience, and then photo copied my passport because it looked so terrible.
That’s the thing, my visa struggles tie into a much bigger issue, a much bigger picture of the changing landscape of Ecuador. Part of the problem of trying to get a visa in Ecuador is that-like most other government operated systems- immigration laws are changing faster than people can keep up with it.
Quito itself seems to be a confused bustle of old and new. In the south of the city stands Old Town, all colonial architecture and grand plazas. But in the north of the city rapid renovation is constructing giant luxury apartment buildings and office spaces. And somewhere in the middle, stands the Ministerio de Extranjería.
On Friday, Heidi and I spent six hours in a small, off white room in this Ministerio, lined with chairs waiting for our number to be called. We had arrived at 8:30 am, just like we had been advised, and given the number 75. “Just wait until you number is called.” The guard had told us. He was outfitted in full riot gear: bulletproof vest, mace, gun. It seemed a little excessive for a room full of people waiting to get permission to stay in Ecuador.
But after six hours in that cramped, hot room, watching the numbers click by slowly, and pushy lawyers forcing their clients in before us, I was feeling murderous. Maybe I could just steal that gun and break in to see someone about this fucking visa…then we were finally called up. The women glanced at my papers, took my photo, and then told me to come back Tuesday. I wanted to punch her.
But I didn’t.
I laughed. One of those hysterical, high pitched laughed. Heidi looked at me with worried eyes. We returned to Otavalo, but only briefly.
And now I am back in Quito. Sitting on the floor of my hostel, awaiting my 8:00 arrival at the Ministerio, that great mixture of new ideas and old policy, to see if I will be granted a visa. I love Quito, but in the words of Heidi, “Do we have to keep meeting like this?”
This is not the first time I’ve written about this clash of traditional and new ideas in Ecuador, and it won’t be the last. It’s a complicated topic, and one that feels especially poignant right now because my future hangs in the balance. It is difficult and frustrating to place your life in the hands of a bureaucracy you don’t trust.
But it is what it is. Tomorrow, I will see. But for now, although I love Quito, and there is so much to write and say about this complicated city, I am missing my quiet Panecillo streets. I would like to spend a few uninterrupted days with my host family, away from the always occupied streets and the yells of the ayudantes, “ Quito, Quito, Quito.”